The 2021 season has been a bit of a struggle for the New Jersey Devils, as they play out the string with little remaining hope of reaching the postseason. There have been bits and pieces of encouragement sprinkled throughout the campaign but, overall, disappointment has been a prevailing theme after an initial promising start. That the Devils will fail to make the playoffs is certainly not a surprise, that it doesn’t look like they will end up particularly close to the bubble is perhaps not shocking either, but the way the season has unfolded has magnified the fact that this organization still has a significant distance to go to be competitive in their division.
As of this publishing, the Devils sit a full ten points outside the final spot in the East Division, which is currently occupied by the Boston Bruins. Assuming everyone continues at their current points pace, the Devils would need to go roughly 19-2-1 over their final 22 games to overtake them. Not that anyone was harboring much in the way of hopes that this season was headed any other direction but it’s worthwhile to state just how cooked the Devils are at this point before we move along. This season’s format was particularly brutal for the teams in the pandemic-generated East Division, where a 102-point pace over an 82-game season represents the current cutoff, but when the Eastern Conference reconstitutes next season, things do not appear like they will get much friendlier (Boston would actually be in 9th by virtue of tiebreakers in that scenario).
Along with the disappointing team results, there have been some struggles for individuals as well. Kyle Palmieri has had a quiet season and appears destined for the trade block. Nikita Gusev has encountered more of a sophomore black hole than sophomore slump in his second NHL season (and just cleared waivers). Jack Hughes looked like he might be on his way to superstardom the first few weeks of the season and in the past month has looked like a slightly-improved facsimile of the occasionally effective Hughes from 2019-20. Nico Hischier has sandwiched five games and a captaincy announcement between a broken ankle, a bout of COVID-19, and a broken face in what’s been a lost season. Trade acquisition Andreas Johnsson has had fleeting moments of effectiveness but has largely been invisible this season. PK Subban has generated more points but continues to struggle in on-ice impact.
There have of course been some positive developments on the individual front. Despite getting middling ice time, Jesper Bratt has looked great, even with lousy shooting luck. Janne Kuokkanen has looked like a legitimate NHLer as has Yegor Sharangovich, particularly of late. Ty Smith has had a great rookie campaign so far, with strong performances and substantial minutes/responsibilities. Other performances have been a bit mixed, with Mackenzie Blackwood having stretches where he looks unbeatable and stretches where he looks extremely beatable, Pavel Zacha leading the team in points but struggling badly in on-ice impacts, and Miles Wood looking like a breakout candidate early but cooling significantly of late.
Given the disappointing team results and a pretty meh bag of individual results, the outlook doesn’t feel overly rosy for the Devils right now. There is a lot of ground to make up between them and the teams they are chasing and it’s unclear where all of those necessary standing points are theoretically come from in a future season. I do think there are reasons not to despair too much, though.
Chief among those reasons is in the 5v5 numbers for the team this season. Looking at the team’s underlying stats, there is at least some encouragement to be found there. The Devils, despite being one of the league’s youngest teams and largely reliant on under-23 players while being in the toughest division in the league, have acquitted themselves well at even strength. The Devils are essentially a 50% xG team this season, even playing without their number one center for the vast majority of the season. A lot of things have not gone right for the Devils this season and they still at least look competitive on a nightly basis, particularly at 5v5.
The obvious issue that has plagued the Devils this season are brutal special teams, with a penalty kill that was disastrous early (though slightly better now) and a power play that has been anemic every step of the way. Special teams are highly scheme-related though and things that are theoretically more fixable than 5-on-5 play.
Most of all though, the reason to maintain some hope for the future is that the Devils do seemingly have many of the pieces they need in place with more possible help in the prospect pipeline on the way, even if this season has ended up disastrous. Hughes has been uneven by you can clearly see the type of player he is capable of being from his performances this year. Hischier’s injuries have largely been freak ones, and there’s plenty of reason to think that he will be ready for a full season next year. Blackwood is still a bit uneven but has still looked strong overall. Smith has immediately shown that he belongs in the NHL and figures to continue to grow into a big role on the back end. As I’ve written before this season, this team has become immensely frustrating to follow, but there still does seem reason to hope that the next season will be different. Or maybe we are just slightly warmer Buffalo, we’ll see.